Available on: PS4 [Reviewed], Xbox One, PC
Capping off a trilogy is a tough order no matter what medium you’re working in. For British developer Rocksteady Studios, there’s been considerable expectation heaped upon their reportedly final entry in the Batman: Arkham games, a franchise they started back in 2009 with the universally-acclaimed Batman: Arkham Asylum. Batman: Arkham Knight, like most sequels, is bigger in scope in almost every way from its predecessors, but does that make it a worthy final outing? In short, absolutely. While Arkham Knight has a few noticeable flaws and has suffered from a disastrous launch on the PC, it’s a wholly satisfying experience that introduces enough new elements to keep things fresh while retaining the core gameplay that made the previous titles so engrossing to begin with. The Batmobile sections could do with a tune-up though.
Upon firing up Batman: Arkham Knight for the first time, it’s apparent that Rocksteady is supremely confident in the experience they’ve crafted. Set nine months after the events of Arkham City and the death of The Joker, Gotham City is enjoying a rare respite from the rampant crime that typically plagues the city. Of course, there can be no Batman story without conflict and pretty soon Gotham’s citizenry is evacuated after The Scarecrow threatens to engulf the entire city with his new fear toxin. While it’s great seeing Scarecrow turn up as one of the primary antagonists (especially considering John Noble gives a terrifying vocal performance), it feels like Rocksteady goes out of its way to think of a convenient reason to have an open world environment devoid of people, as if the very notion is absurd. As much as Rocksteady tries to make Gotham feel populated with various enemies and police, it’s disappointing to yet again play as Batman in a city with no population to protect.
Thankfully, it doesn’t take long to forget about this contrived setup, as the game wastes no time in getting right into the action. Batman starts the game overloaded with moves and gadgets from the previous titles, meaning that Arkham Knight would be a terrible introduction to the series for new players, as the game sort of just expects you to know how to play already. Any kind of traditional tutorial is saved for the game’s most significant new addition, the much-publicized Batmobile. The Batmobile becomes Batman’s most important companion throughout the game and introduces a wide range of new gameplay experiences, from high speed chase sequences to tank battles. While the Batmobile is a welcome addition, Rocksteady puts a little too much emphasis on it, to the detriment of the more traditional and frankly more entertaining combat and stealth sequences. In particular, there are far too many laborious tank battles with the Arkham Knight’s seemingly unlimited supply of unmanned drones (the game makes a point of explaining that they are unmanned so as to justify Batman blowing them up with extreme prejudice). These sequences aren’t as bad as some critics have made out (and are actually fun in smaller doses) but it’s hard not to feel that Rocksteady went a bit overboard in trying to justify the Batmobile’s inclusion.
Speaking of the Arkham Knight, he’s the game’s other main villain in addition to Scarecrow. An anti-Batman of sorts who brings along an entire mercenary team and enough unmanned drones to invade a small country in his quest to kill Batman, the Arkham Knight is a welcome addition to Batman’s rogue’s gallery (Rocksteady created specifically him for the game). Unfortunately, for most of his appearance, he’s more annoying than interesting, coming off as a whiny merc who feels more like a nuisance rather than a legitimate threat. Thankfully, some late-game revelations regarding the Arkham Knight’s true identity help save the character from being a total write-off, but he still feels like a bit of a missed opportunity. And while the central conflict between Batman, the Arkham Knight, and Scarecrow is well-told and hits some pretty dramatic notes, it’s hard not to be disappointed with how the game shoves Batman’s allies to the side, especially Barbara Gordon/Oracle, whose role in the plot is sure to upset fans of the character. There’s no question that Batman should still be the focus of the game, but surely Rocksteady could have cut a few tank battles in order to give some of the side characters more substantial roles.
As far as the experience of playing the game itself goes, it’s clear that Rocksteady truly took advantage of the additional technical advances that next generation hardware has to offer (again, barring the disastrous PC port, which clearly should have been the best version) to craft a game bigger and more complex in scope than any of the previous entries. There are moments in Arkham Knight that feel transcendent and capture the experience of being the Batman like no other game before it. The dizzying array of activities on offer, from helping fellow vigilante Nightwing bring down The Penguin’s weapon trafficking operation to solving a series of grisly murders, go a long way in making Arkham Knight feel like the definitive Batman experience. Unfortunately, this is also the fourth entry in the series, including the underwhelming WB Montreal-developed prequel story Arkham Origins, so the novelty of being the Batman is not quite as thrilling as it once was. It feels like Rocksteady is trying to balance about a hundred spinning plates at once, resulting in a deep, but unfocused game. Plus, the game asks almost too much in terms of suspending your disbelief, as Batman’s “no killing” rule is definitely not congruent with a Batmobile that shoots rockets. It’s time for Bats to just accept that some of the goons he punches or shoots into unconsciousness are never getting back up.
Despite occasionally cracking under the weight of its own lofty goals and ambitions, Batman: Arkham Knight is an enormously satisfying conclusion to Rocksteady’s stellar series. As easy as it is to complain about the Batmobile not living up to expectations or the game’s feature-bloat getting in the way of its best content, it’s hard not to feel spoiled by a game that so thoroughly nails the feeling of empowerment and struggle that comes along with stepping into the Caped Crusader’s shoes. Arkham Knight is a dark, often pulse-pounding experience that falls just below The Witcher 3 in delivering the best big-budget gaming experience of 2015 so far. If this is truly the end of Rocksteady’s reign as the caretakers of Batman video games, whomever picks up the torch next will have quite the challenge in delivering a superior experience.
- A highly detailed and expansive Gotham City to explore and defend
- An engrossing, harrowing storyline that incorporates tons of Batman’s allies and enemies
- A beautiful game with an overwhelming array of side missions and activities
- The Batmobile, while a fun addition, is overused and could control better
- Certain characters are misused and the Arkham Knight is a letdown
- Batman’s “no kill” policy is taken to the level of absurdity. Why don’t the bad guys just put people in those tanks? They would win instantly.